Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, nonverbal communication, and difficulty making and maintaining relationships are some of the barriers individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) face in their daily lives (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). In addition, there are high prevalence rates of psychiatric comorbidities such as ADHD, anxiety, and OCD in those with ASD (Romero, M. et al., 2016). All of these factors contribute to potential difficulties in a learning environment.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual learning was the exception rather than the rule. For adult learners with autism, virtual platforms have served as a way to spend free time, playing video games or browsing through videos and favorite websites. As professionals working with these adult learners, we acknowledge that the virtual world was one where our students had the ability to express themselves, but also one where they didn’t necessarily have to practice the social skills we teach and reinforce on a daily basis. When the COVID-19 pandemic presented itself, educational settings were faced with the unplanned, immediate need to create innovative ways to prevent regression and continue to provide ongoing instruction. In many ways, this need turned out to be more of an opportunity to reach students in ways that had not been anticipated. With the use of an online video conferencing service to link all of our students together, everyone has the ability to both see and hear each other and share screens as needed. As you can imagine, there are many disadvantages to online formats over having class in-person; however, in a relatively short time, we have come to realize that there are also many unforeseen advantages.
In programs for adults with ASD, such as the Asperger’s Syndrome Adult Transition (ASAT) program at Chapel Haven Schleifer Center in New Haven, CT, instruction is focused on social communication and independent living skills. Instruction is provided in small groups and individually, and typically happens in the natural setting. With stay-at-home orders in place, none of us are doing our usual activities in natural settings, but we are having to create new natural settings for our everyday activities such as work, grocery shopping, and socializing with friends and family. This new setting is most often utilizing technology… the same technology many individuals with ASD have enjoyed using in their downtime, and that they have a great amount of expertise navigating.
Navigating the online world is observed to be a natural strength of many of our program participants. There are plenty of times when our students assist our staff with troubleshooting a technology issue in the classroom or introduce the staff to a more user-friendly way of accessing materials online. This skillset can also become the basis of a vocational path for some, which has proven to be a great asset to many employers, ourselves included. In taking this natural strength into consideration, a task that one is accustomed to and comfortable doing typically requires less effort than one that is not within one’s repertoire. As with any of us, when our students understand something at the level of being able to help someone else to understand it or explain it to someone else, a sense of confidence is evident. Building on a strength typically leads to a more reinforcing environment, assuming praise and attention from peers or an instructor are desirable for an individual.
As a participant of virtual learning, it has been noted that some individuals have benefited from being able to control their surroundings in a way that they know to be most conducive to their learning. For some, this may mean being in a room alone without any distractions, lighting of their choice, seating that feels most comfortable, etc. At times, due to confounding factors such as feelings of anxiety or over-stimulation, some individuals have even requested to join a virtual class, but utilize the option of turning off the audio and/or video in order to “attend,” but not have all of the demands of attending. This option has allowed individuals to still access information that they might have otherwise missed if they had only had the option of fully attending (in person or virtually).
Preliminary attendance outcomes tracked by Chapel Haven suggest that in some cases, the barriers that are removed with the shift to a virtual format have had a positive impact on attendance rates of individuals who have otherwise struggled with attendance. One individual who participates in programming with ASAT had an average attendance rate of 50% from January-March 2020, but has a 100% attendance rate, with the exception of a few late arrivals, since shifting to virtual learning. The number of classes the individual is taking each semester has not changed, however, the barriers of in-person attendance are no longer relevant with virtual learning. This suggests that the virtual learning format has mitigated barriers that were negatively impacting this individual’s ability to access the programming to allow him to work toward his goals.
Relatedly, it may be no surprise that accessibility has been advantageous in other ways as well. There is an ability to reach a much broader group of students, both in terms of socioeconomic status and physical location. The new virtual offerings of the ASAT program, based in New Haven, CT, have been able to reach students in a range of other states, from New York to Maryland. We have also been able to partner with our sister program, Chapel Haven West, in Tucson, AZ, to offer programming from both campuses to both programs’ participants. If an individual is an appropriate fit for participating in our programming, class costs for a six-week semester range from about $75-$150, giving individuals who may not have a suitable social network while at home during the pandemic the ability to connect with others and access a robust curriculum and recreational offerings, virtually.
Within our social communicative curriculum, we often have the need to address difficulties with reciprocal conversations, or “turn taking,” and the ability to filter thoughts, or knowing when to end a conversational topic. When used thoughtfully, features such as the ability for the facilitator to mute participants and for students to privately chat enable the facilitator and students to learn about and model these social nuances. For example, a student who is repeatedly upset with a peer could be able to quietly resolve the problem in real-time over private chat with the instructor without interruption to the class.
The online format means that most students are taking classes from their familial homes. The virtual teaching format creates a window into the students’ home environments. Through this window, teachers are better able to understand where each student is coming from and how to address those needs. Within some classes, participation or assistance from parents or family members may be helpful, such as in a virtual cooking class. Parent-student relationships can also be positively affected by virtual learning formats. In some cases, they have given parents the opportunity to better understand what each individual is learning and an ability to help reinforce those areas in the home environment. This has also given the students a chance to be able to generalize previous on-campus learning across settings with the guidance of an instructor.
The planning and preparation for classes such as virtual dinner prep have also given students executive functioning modeling and practice. While they are receiving assistance, they have been required to know what they are cooking week to week and to have ingredients ready for their class times. Virtual classes during a pandemic have also required students to do a bit of problem solving. Sometimes the exact item they need for a class is not available. They have learned to be flexible, to substitute ingredients or art supplies, to adjust to new technology, and have figured out ways to complete a task under less than ideal circumstances.
Given that the virtual format is new and will continue to be modified as outcomes are measured and data is analyzed, the expected challenges have surprisingly been rebutted with unexpected anecdotal and observed advantages. As a program committed to providing high-quality programming to increase the independence of adults with social and developmental disabilities, the virtual learning format has allowed the individuals we serve to continue to work toward reaching their goals and stay connected with their peers and staff. There are more opportunities to begin the journey toward independence as part of our community than there have ever been, and it has come on the heels of a worldwide pandemic.
Gina Apicella, MS, BCBA, LBA, is Vice President of Autism Services and Carolyn Gorman, LPC, ATR, is Supervisor of the ASAT Program at Chapel Haven Schleifer Center.
Chapel Haven Schleifer Center is an award-winning, national non-profit dedicated to empowering adults with social and developmental disabilities to live independent and self-empowered lives. Our new distance learning portal, which can be viewed at www.chapelhaven.org/chapel-haven-online/ is available to all adults, not just those already enrolled at Chapel Haven. Please go online and browse our catalogues! To learn more, contact Catherine DeCarlo at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: Author.
Romero, M., Aguilar, J. M., Del-Rey-Mejías, Á., Mayoral, F., Rapado, M., Peciña, M., Barbancho, M. Á., Ruiz-Veguilla, M., & Lara, J. P. (2016). Psychiatric comorbidities in autism spectrum disorder: A comparative study between DSM-IV-TR and DSM-5 diagnosis. International journal of clinical and health psychology: IJCHP, 16(3), 266–275. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijchp.2016.03.001